The Barkan Winery's decision to reassign several employees of Ethiopian origin to different jobs sparked calls on Tuesday by politicians and social media commentators to boycott the company.
According to a report by the Kan public broadcasting company, the workers were moved to other jobs at Barkan after an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, kashrut supervision organization raised questions over whether the employees were indeed Jewish.
Among those highly critical of the move was Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who called it an example of "pure racism."
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The controversy was sparked by Kan journalist Uriah Elkayam, who reported that management at Barkan, which is located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, transferred several Ethiopian Israelis employed on the winery production line to other jobs, at the request of the Badatz Eda Haredit organization. Badatz Eda Haredit, an anti-Zionist organization which certifies the kashrut of Barkan and other wines, had questioned whether the workers in question are Jewish. According to halakha (traditional religious law), kosher wine production must be performed by Orthodox, Shabbat-observant Jews.
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"Each of us has values, and I have values. You are Jewish, he is Jewish, I'm Jewish. Then, business. Come on, business is business," the winery's CEO Gilles Assouline is heard telling one of the employees in the video.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yosef said he takes a grave view of what was done to the employees, whom he described as religiously observant. “There is no explanation for such a directive other than pure racism. Ethiopian immigrants are Jews in every sense of the word,” Yosef said.
Tempo Beverages, which owns a majority stake in Barkan, said that the winery has a diverse workforce, but noted, “Based on Badatz rules, only religious workers approved by Badatz are authorized to deal with several phases of the production process of the wine. It should also be noted that about 10 percent of the employees of the Tempo group are of Ethiopian background.”
Badatz Eda Haredit responded: “Due to [our] commitment to wine lovers who keep kosher, the Badatz is extremely careful in [overseeing] the wine production process carried out by those whose Jewishness is in doubt.” In this case, Badatz added, it decided to take a collective step “so as not to harm one or another employee, and therefore asked to transfer three workers to another department in the plant, thereby avoiding personal harm to the employees.”
For his part, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein issued a statement saying: “It’s hard for me to believe that there is one Jew who would refuse to drink wine produced by Jews from the Ethiopian community. Shameful racism.”
Referring to the hardships faced by Ethiopian immigrants seeking to immigrate to and integrate in Israel, Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay tweeted: “[If] Jews who journeyed for weeks and months on foot to reach Israel are not good enough to sell wine, then those who discriminate against them are not good enough for us.” He added that he would not buy Barkan wine and called on the police to investigate the case.
Knesset Member Yael German (Yesh Atid) said: “As someone who particularly loves Barkan wine, as of today, I will no longer buy or drink it until they apologize and reconsider the racist discrimination against employees of Ethiopian background.”
Rabbi Yosef’s late father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was also Sephardi chief rabbi, ruled that members of the Ethiopian community were indeed Jewish after their identity was called into question. Nevertheless, other halakhic experts have continued to express doubts over the community's Jewishness. Badatz Eda Haredit authorities are considered particularly strict and have chosen not to abide by Ovadia Yosef’s ruling.